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Is running clock the best path to ball control?

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And is the best way to help your defense to slow things down?

NCAA Football: Citrus Bowl-Louisiana State vs Louisville Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

From 2008 to 2012 the Spanish national football (other kind) team was the most dominant in the world. They won the 2008 and 2012 Euro Cups and the World Cup held in between with an evolved style called “tiki take” that involved triangles and one or two-touch passing that maintained possession.

The result of their strategy was that opposing teams got very little scoring opportunities and the Spanish would win game after game with scores like 2-0 where they were fully in control but rarely pulling away from their opponents. In a game like soccer, where a single breakaway, good set piece, or box penalty can bring about a score, it always seemed like a risky strategy to me. Is the safest way to win a game to try and control possession or is it to score as much as possible with every chance you get? It seemed to worked out very well for the Spaniards though.

As someone who watches a great deal of Big 12 football, I’ve slowly started to develop a certain degree of skepticism about what exactly teams gain from a “ball-control” approach to offense. At times it seems that these teams are playing with one hand behind their backs by refusing to attack the opposing defense with calls designed to produce explosive plays.

What’s more, if one team insists on operating at high tempo, how much control can you really exert over the game by trying to go slow when you’re at possession? I’d see box scores where Baylor would possess the ball for only 20 minutes or so and still drop 40+ points and over 500 yards of offense. Is there really any use to possessing the ball longer and being more plodding if the other team still has enough time to score lots of points and to do so quickly?

With those concerns in mind, I took a look at some of 2016’s more effective slow-tempo teams and some of the more effective up-tempo teams for glimpses into what’s been happening as those divergent styles clash.

Let’s start with the slower teams:

And now the up-tempo teams:

There are doubtlessly many observations to be made from all of this but here’s a stab at a few major ones:

Running the ball to burn clock doesn’t give you an edge in the possession battle.

Temple is the only team measured here that would deliberately try to slow the game down and run the air out of the ball and actually end up running significantly more plays than their opponent. This might have actually been because they weren’t always very efficient running the ball and their ball-control would then rely on QB Philip Walker bailing them out on passing downs. They ranked 25th in S&P on passing downs, the only place where their offense ranked particularly well.

Meanwhile Kansas State, LSU, and even the North Dakota State Bison were often running clock on offense only to see their opponents get the chance to run at least as many plays as they ran and sometimes more.

The way to run more plays than your opponent is by throwing the ball.

Our up-tempo teams mostly enjoyed nice margins in plays run over their opponents and while none of them were amazing at running the football, they were all at least fairly effective at throwing it and did so regularly. Even Temple factors in here since they leaned on their passing game on third downs to sustain their drives.

Clemson in particular ran 14 more plays per game than their opponents on average. Presumably this is a function of the fact that if you have a negative or no-gain run, your drive will likely end with a punt whereas if you’re throwing the ball regularly you can have multiple no-gain plays and still move the ball because each completed pass might be worth a first down or close to it.

The effects of tempo on explosiveness for either offense or defense seem fairly negligible.

Our five slower teams averaged 6.1 yards per play while surrendering 5.1 yards per play. The five faster teams averaged 5.9 yards per play while also surrendering 5.1 yards per play.

Now if we look at the fastest teams in college football a year ago we’ll find a bunch of bad defenses, but these five teams had good defenses. We can perhaps speculate that this is because they used their passing games to run more plays than their opponent, perhaps drawing their opponents into pass-heavy contests that they (the opponents) didn’t have efficient enough passing games to keep pace in.

It might also turn out that our faster teams that sucked on defense were more explosive, but by failing to protect their defenses it didn’t bring about the same results on the scoreboard.

The fact that our slower teams were more explosive offensive than our faster teams despite running 10 or so fewer plays per game might be explained by the fact that run-heavy offensive systems are the best for grabbing chunk yardage via play-action.

Or it’s possible that good running teams boost their “yards per play” averages by the fact that they can get four or five yards per carry rather than the three or four you see from more passing-oriented teams while still grabbing comparable chunks of yardage when throwing.

There seems to be two ways to protect your defense that each work well.

One way is to protect them from having to defend a large number of plays from your opponent by taking your time, running the ball, and limiting the total number of plays run in the game by either team. This style requires a good defense to begin with though because you can’t maintain a slower pace if you give up quick scoring drives from your opponent early in the game.

The other way to protect a defense though is evidently to throw the ball around effectively, draw your opponent into a higher scoring shootout where they may not be able to maintain drives efficiently, and then run up a higher number of plays as a consequence. We could call this the New England method, given that this is partly how the Patriots have taken down their opponents in recent seasons. With a combination of ball-control, passing, and high numbers of plays run you can exhaust a defense more than a ground and pound team could.

It’s long been the perception that the way to wear a team down is to smash into them over and over again but the benefit of passing plays is that you force DL to try and race past OL in the pass rush, you force the entire defense to sprint more as they pursue the ball all over the field, and you prolong the length of time that a play takes up because passing plays are slower developing. If you run enough passing plays the opposing team’s legs will be mush.

Overall it seems that using slow-paced offense worked to the benefit of teams like K-State and Stanford in 2016 but it’s less obvious that this is the only way to approach ball-control or protecting a defense.